BY BRIAN L. HUCHEL
Air quality continued to be an issue in Hoopeston on Thursday as firefighters worked through the remnants of Wednesday’s tire blaze.
As many as 24 departments and up to 150 firefighters were called to J & R Used Tires around 5:30 a.m. Wednesday when a fire started in the building. The blaze engulfed the three-block building, sending a tower of smoke over part of the city that forced the evacuation of residents who lived west of the site.
Residents evacuated from their homes in the five-block area west of the fire scene received good news mid-morning Thursday as Hoopeston police announced the residents officially would be allowed to return to their homes.
The news was tempered, however, with additional warnings about the air conditions in the city. Shifting winds prompted police to issue a warning to residents in the northeast section of the city to keep their windows closed and air conditioners on to avoid the lingering smoke.
As of Thursday afternoon, Hoopeston Mayor Bill Crusinberry said the smoke had continued to die off during the course of the day.
“The smoke is at the lowest level now,” he said.
The lingering smoke prompted precautions in a few areas. Hoopeston Area Youth Baseball issued a decision during the afternoon to cancel all Pony and Little League games Thursday evening due to continued concerns with air quality.
State and federal Environmental Protection Agency officials continued to measure levels of particles in the air, which originate from a number of different burning sources at the fire scene. That includes the tires as well as building materials.
Andrew Mason, a spokesman for the IEPA, said normal particles levels are 0.15 milligrams per cubic liter. Measurements taken at 8 p.m. Wednesday were five times that amount and still three times that amount as of midnight Wednesday.
He said continuing improvements overnight allowed for evacuated residents to return to their homes.
Crusinberry said he was unaware of anyone having to be treated locally for respiratory problems as a result of the smoke.
Following a mid-afternoon briefing, Crusinberry said there were no more major fires in the remains of the building, just smoldering hot spots that firefighters were working to get water on. The walls of the building had been breached in three places and workers were moving tires and metal inside the burned-out structure.
It was expected that fire officials would stand down to just two squads of 25-30 men by nightfall Thursday — an improvement from early predictions.
“The biggest thing is we’re at now where we had hoped to be (today),” Crusinberry said Thursday.
He added no boil orders had been issued for the city despite 3.5 million gallons of water being used to fight the blaze.
With the fire scene beginning to subside, other entities also planned to pack up. The American Red Cross operated a shelter for evacuees overnight Wednesday, according to Jamie Davis, emergency services manager.
A family of six spent the night there, but as of Thursday, Davis said the shelter would close as of 9 a.m. today.
Transportation also was returning to normal as of Friday. A segment of CSX Railroad tracks near the site was shut down Wednesday as firefighters battled the blaze.
On Thursday, that segment of tracks — which ran parallel to J & R Used Tires — was reopened. A spokeswoman for CSX said, overall, the tracks were closed for 24 hours.
Some trains expected to travel through Hoopeston were rerouted while others were held pending Thursday’s re-opening of the tracks.